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Beware Of The New Wave Of Virtual Kidnapping

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There is a new cyber-crime epidemic sweeping Latin America. It could catch on. Like phishing it is insidious. Worse, it is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The new crime to fear is “virtual kidnapping”. It is a 21st century ploy which is becoming more prevalent in the normally crime-ridden countries like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Guatemala.

Kidnapping is hardly new in this part of the world. It is usually real, violent and often ends in the death of the sequestered person(s). Kroll,Inc. (a “risk consulting” company) recently reported that Mexico has the second highest amount of kidnaps in the world after Columbia. Columbia, they note, tends toward political acts of terror and disappearance more than the financial gain sought in Mexico. This company estimated that, for 2003, there were 4000 in Columbia, 3000 in Mexico and 2000 in Argentina. Mexican government officials then said the number was declining but so many Mexicans do not report crimes to the “authorities” that statistics are relatively useless.

One danger with real kidnappings is that the gangs who do the crime are becoming less selective and less professional. Instead of the body-guarded rich minority in Mexico City they are now finding victims like Yolanda Torres, a middle-class housewife.

These victims are less able to pay ransoms and the newer perpetrators are less able to research the families to know what they can pay. They are also even more brutal than the more “professional” sequestradores. The group who targeted Sra. Torres’ baby son strangled his 15-year-old cousin during the kidnapping. The Torres managed to get up the 102,000 peso ransom (about $US10,000) but the baby was not returned. They said, “We just want them to return Joshua,” she said. “We have hopes that he is still alive.”

But now even Latino criminals are going digital. There was a recent news story that told of an office machine repairman in Mexico City who received a call on his cell phone with a child’s cry and a “Honey, it’s me, I’ve been kidnapped!”

Rodolfo Melchor called the cops and raced home. After those tense minutes to get to his family, he found that they were fine. He had managed to avoid being one of the new victims of “virtual kidnapping” where ransoms are collected without the criminals actually taking anyone (or, as is often the case in these societies, taking their lives) or handling weapons. It is a fiendish and dangerous scam far more worrisome than identity theft or those little notes from Nigerian bank officers who can’t wait to give away those lost millions.

A Guatemalan prison spokesman was quoted as saying “They make them believe they know everything they do, where their children study, where they work and all their daily movements.”

Many or most of these crimes do not become part of the statistics because the police note them as robberies or assaults since no one was really kidnapped. Many victims do not report the crime because, in these third world countries, “police are often unresponsive, inept or corrupt.” Many are too embarrassed at having fallen for a scam.

It is noted that this virtual version of the crime and kidnapping for real are a big business. Sao Paulo state in Brazil reported three thousand virtual kidnaps between the first of the year and 14 February. Mexico (a citizens’ group who used polling for their results) estimated 36,295 kidnappings in their country during 2004. They have not published newer figures yet.

There is also the fact that the world’s leading countries for kidnapping are Mexico, Haiti and Columbia. The victim’s family often do not report the crime because of the total lack of faith in their countries’ “authorities”.

“The mother of one Mexico City man missing since June 2005 embarrassed police by carrying out her own detective work that led to several arrests, and then paid for billboards offering rewards for information on other alleged kidnappers.”

This might be considered a bit of silliness with ransoms running $600 to $1200 in Guatemala and $50 to “the thousands” in Mexico. It is not silly, not spam. The office machine repairman did not pay the money. His family was unharmed. He was put under intense pressure and, when he reached his home, the police had gotten confused and told his wife that he had been kidnapped and she was hysterical with worry.

In Argentina at least one man died from a heart attack. He had paid $1000 to virtual kidnappers who claimed to have taken his son.

Since many of these scams are run from prisons in Mexico and Guatemala, those countries have banned cell phones in prisons and tried to jam signals. Mexico set up a system to alert people when they are getting a call from a prison pay phone. However, given the traditional corruption of both police and prison workers, it would be unlikely that this ban would actually work.

As usual the advice, which we all forget now and again, is to scrupulously protect private information, passwords, keys to your identity and your family’s and their whereabouts.

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  • As an update of sorts, Mexican TV reported last night that Brazilian police practiced kidnap rescues.

    However, they used live ammunition and a small boy was killed. So said a brief report during a movie.

  • Johnny

    Argentina is crime-ridden like Mexico and Brazil?? I’m not saying there is a crime problem but wow, talk about a stretch… So I guess then the United States has the same crime levels as Rio and Mexico City, since it has the same murder rate as Argentina.

  • Very scary, Howard–the internet is a wonderful thing but as with all technologies we create, there’s always a dark side, and the more complex the tech the more nefarious the crimes. This one is really over the top.

  • Nancy

    This makes me wonder how much the higher-ups & governments of these countries themselves have a hand in this stuff, that they tolerate such goings-on. Why don’t they put a stop to it? Or is it that the police themselves are the ones involved in some way in the payoffs? In that case, what’s needed is a top-to-bottom purge. I would support such a thing in the US, as well. We need it just as much if not more, considering how corrupt our own government has become.

  • “This makes me wonder how much the higher-ups & governments of these countries themselves have a hand in this stuff, that they tolerate such goings-on.”

    Actually, none. They are, in fact, often the targets of the sequestradores. Why? Because they have the money.

    Nancy, it’s not so much that they tolerate it as it is a case of not being able to control the society through the rule of law, as we do here in America.

    To begin with, Latin American countries have fundamental differences that go very deeply into the roots of their cultures compared to our culture here.

    First and foremost is the poverty. Poverty in Latin America is so deep and widespread that it is the driving force behind almost all the unrest and crime (as well as the mass emigration to the US) throughout the region. The average person on welfare and food stamps in this country makes more in a month than a poor person in LatAm will make in a year, and the numbers of people in such circumstances are staggering; perhaps 90% of everyone in Latin America is poor by US standards.

    Law enforcement is ill paid and often corrupt. Again, poverty. The average beat cop’s salary is less than unemployment here. It’s easy to bribe cops because of that, and sometimes they themselves are the criminals. It’s estimated that fully one third of the street-level armed robberies in Mexico City are committed by the police.

    Racism. In virtually every LatAm country, the people who hold both the political power AND the wealth are overwhelmingly European; the indigenous peoples have very little of either. One notable exception is Bolivian president Evo Morales, a Chavez ally; but even he does not control the wealth of Bolivia.

    Latin America is a growing, festering problem for this hemisphere, and with the rise of leaders like Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Corrales in Ecuador and Ortega in Nicaragua, the problem is being exacerbated as a whole new crop of socialist and Marxist caudillos takes over the leadership of the continent.

    The US would do well to pay more attention to what is going on down there. it’s a powder keg, and it will blow up in our faces, probably sooner rather than later.

  • Nancy

    Like I surmised, then, it’s a problem that starts at the top, with the higher-ups. Just like here, only more so.

    I thought the Mexicans had a revolution back in the early 20th century that overthrew the European upper crust – isn’t that what Pancho Villa & his crew were all about?

    In any event, what can be done about it? It would seem from what you describe that it’s a culture problem as well, except I can’t see all those people from the hispanic cultures concluding their culture/s are at fault & need to be changed somehow. I mean, I should think the first step would be to institute some pretty effective anti-breeding programs, get a handle on population growth, to begin with, but between the RC Church & the BushCo refusal to stem runaway pop. growth, I don’t see how it can be done in the face of a morbidly macho culture. There’s also the problem of a culture of acceptance of graft & corruption. That sort of thing starts in the home & early school. I doubt they’d welcome foreign teachers or incoming indoctrinators (even if they were medic types) who preached both reproductive & social responsibility & intolerance of corruption. At least here in the US we still give lip service to it…some of us.

  • Clavos added to my article and we agree. Nancy has it right, too. There was a Mexican revolution and “the people” were to create an honest society. (The Old Gringo is a great movie about it.) Nancy wrote of “reproductive & social responsibility & intolerance of corruption” and the cultural lack of it down here. The biggest difference is not American honesty. It is the lack of the expectation in Latin America that people will act honestly.

    Jerry’s comment made me realize how little I know of Argentina. Around 2001 the economy was so bad that half the people were in poverty. Now it is growing a stronger economy, lessened debt but at what cost?

    NPR reported today that political scientist, Sergio Berensztein, says Argentines consider their President Kirschner a “classic caudillo” (strongman) who will bring the country back from economic chaos. He goes on,
    “Because democracy is too noisy, too messy, it takes a lot of time to get things done. So in the middle of the crisis—that’s what you want — you want a strong hand, quote, unquote ‘solving problems.'”

    Kirchner has a strong alliance with Hugo Chavez who has brought oil in and reduced the debt by 3 billion dollars. On the other hand he sided with the US on Iran and Argentine prosecutors have named Iranians as responsible for the 1994 bombing that killed many in a Jewish Cultural Center in Buenos Aires.

    Where are they on crime and corruption? I don’t know. It was named as part of this new technological threat. I didn’t make it up, Jerry.

    Elvira. Right! That is why Einstein was so worried about using his brilliance to make bombs — even cell phones and the web have evil denizens and dark sides.